The roads of Rome stood for two thousand years and more; who would predict less for the roads of Moses? Who would predict less for his Shea Stadium, a structure consciously shaped to resemble Rome’s Colosseum…?
—Robert Caro, “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” 1974
The DiamondVision menu was classed up for the postseason. Instead of bombarding us with various iterations of “You there, what’s in the box?” and “Uncle Jack’s Steak Sauce Presents: Which is closer, Greece or Albany?” as it did from April through September, the big screen featured a few muted presentations, including an infomercial of sorts.
It started with Gary Cohen explaining that the Mets played their first two years in the Polo Grounds. As the camera came up on the Rheingold sign in deep, deep center on the northern edge of Harlem, I clapped real quickly. I had to — the image faded in a few seconds, sort of like the first home of the Mets seems to have in the official memory. It ended with a lavish tour of CGI Park, the computer-generated portrayal of what we have since learned (thanks, fast and first, to Hotfoot) will be called Citi Field. On the two occasions the bit was shown while I was sitting next to my co-blogger, Jason applauded heartily at the New Ballpark pitch. I think he was afraid they would cease construction on it if he didn’t.
I toasted history as I tend to do. He cheered progress as is his prerogative. Nobody did much of anything for the here and now. The script, you see, also paid lip service to Shea Stadium, noting it became the home of the Mets in 1964 and that many fine things had happened in it. Shea, like the Polo Grounds, was in the picture to pave the way to the future, to Citi Field. This wasn’t an educational filmstrip. It was hype, and that was fine.
It’s going to be fine, too. Citi Field, on which ground is at last officially broken (a mere five months after the new day actually began rising), doesn’t roll off the tongue probably because after 43 seasons, anything that plays home to the Mets and isn’t called Shea Stadium is going to sound and read bizarre. If you’re a devotee of South Park, perhaps the second thing, after “really?” that crossed your mind when you learned what the naming rights bidding yielded was Tuong Lu Kim, the recurring Chinese character who operates City Wok. He slurs the soft-c into more of a “sh” when he answers the phone “City Wok!” and encourages you to try his specialty, the “City Beef”.
Let’s try not to think about that (though now I’m stuck with it in my head until at least 2009). Let’s not worry that other, less kindly disposed observers will find the easy rhyme. After being subjected to a zillion choruses of a Yankovicked “step right up and beat the Mets,” big deal. Let’s not pay any attention either to the predictable chorus of columnists who between now and October 2008 will sniff that tearing down renovated Yankee Stadium is a crime against nature (the Babe and Larrupin’ Lou will be aghast on their Bill Gallo cloud, though it will be tough to tell by their expressions) while demolishing Shea is a public service. Have the good sense to ignore them, too. I’ve never heard a Mets fan, not even my technically accurate friend Jason, put down Shea the way those who don’t pay for the privilege do. The press elevator must really work in the new parks.
Anyway, don’t fret at what sounds like “Citi”. Be glad instead that 1) $20 million a year will flow into the Mets’ no-fee checking account before being laundered into Scott Boras’ pockets; 2) There is an implied NYC feel to the sponsor even though I recently received a Citi statement from the city of Sioux Falls, S.D.; 3) I’ve heard of this company and so have you; 4) This company’s name is probably not going to change substantially any time soon; 5) The joint won’t be named for a chain of pet supply stores unless Petco buys out Citi Group; 6) No ATM fees for me…presumably.
Listen, I advocated going for top dollar and avoiding utter embarrassment if possible. The Mets seem to have achieved the first part, and while the second part is a matter of taste, Citi Field — albeit a little generic to the point of fictional and rather resonant of a minor league facility in Islip — isn’t a total disaster. As Mets fans, we’ve conditioned ourselves to treat noncalamities as moral victories. Score one for us.
The park…I mean field itself? We’ll see. You can draw up all the virtual realty you want. No way of knowing how extraordinary or how extraordinarily disappointing the new digs will be until we’re inside. I reserve judgment while fervently hoping for the best.
That leaves us with Shea Stadium, which is where I want to go right now. That’s where I went in 2006 on 29 separate occasions (30, counting my wishful World Series jaunt). That’s where I’ve been going to see Mets games since 1973. Unless you were in the vanguard of the New Breed in ’62 or ’63, it’s the only home you as a Met fan have ever known.
Shea Stadium is my Nikon Camera Player of the Year for 2006, winning the honor that went to our soon-to-be-sundered radio team in 2005. Shea of course is slated to disappear after 2008. This award doesn’t portend longevity, does it?
Often derided as maybe the worst ballpark in the Majors, I’ve decided Shea Stadium was the best thing about a very good season, at least for me…and it’s my award. The Mets won 50 regular-season games here in ’06, two more in the NLDS and two in the NLCS (though the home-field advantage kind of lapsed at the end). That certainly helped its cause, but I came to love and regard Shea more than I have in ages for two other reasons.
One was, predictably and sentimentally, that it was suddenly living on borrowed time. It’s not right to speak ill of the nearly deceased. The other reason it became my cause was given to me by somebody I met for the first time this year at, not ironically, Shea.
In April, Dan Ziegler, who you may know as the consistently enjoyable lone star of Lone Star Mets, was visiting the home of his favorite team for the first time in 20 years. He lives in Arlington, Tex., but remains as loyal to the Mets as he was in his New Jersey youth. It was a very big deal for him to fly to New York for the sole purpose of taking in two Mets games in April, less than two weeks after the plans for Shea’s successor were unveiled.
Naturally, the subject of ballparks came up. Dan is a regular visitor to Ameriquest Field, home of the Rangers. Opened in 1994, it was one of the first retro delights in the Majors — a Priti Field, if you will. Dan told me he likes it fine (as did I on my one visit in 1997), but said Shea was better. You’d be surprised, he told me, how fast the novelty of a new park wears off. Shea, old and scruffy as it is…now this is a place to watch and feel baseball. The “energy” was what Dan kept coming back to. It was so strong, so real. The ballpark in Arlington, whatever it was called that week, couldn’t hope to match it.
“Everybody gets buck wild over here when they watch a ballgame,” somebody else — Benny Agbayani — once said of Shea. “This is the most exciting place that I’ve been to, where the fans are into the game from the first inning to the ninth. I can just imagine the people who don’t have tickets, at home. They probably wreck their TVs.”
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the commitment of Mets diehards to Metroplex timepassers, Rangers fans likely just checking their watches to see when Cowboy camp kicks off. So if we are who we are, not where we sit, the stadium shouldn’t make a difference. Whether at Shea or Citi, we’ll still be in New York and we’ll still take baseball seriously. Just because we’ll be a little more comfortable and far less sardined doesn’t mean we’ll forget how to root, root, root for the home team.
Yet Dan’s sentiments stayed with me all season. Despite my occasional and pungent discontent with Shea, I realized in 2006 what a special place we will lose come 2009. That makes letting go unexpectedly difficult and hanging on to what remains all the more imperative.
Whether Shea Stadium is afforded the cachet in death it’s been deprived in life remains to be seen. Its backstory — a municipal stadium situated among the parkways, amenable to several types of events, ideal for none — is 410 feet removed from the musty tatters of the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field (former home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, in case you hadn’t heard). Shea probably won’t be bygone enough in our time to evoke objective wistfulness. The second the Mets can’t gin up nostalgia to sell everything from it that would otherwise go into a Dumpster, they’ll barely mention it. Thus, it’s on those of us who sat in it, stood in it, leaped in it and high-fived in it to give it the round of applause it’s earned…to love it in the present-tense while we still can.
We know the superb and the supernatural have occurred here. You can run down the catechism with minimal prompting, Casey to Mookie, Rocky to Robin, Agee to Endy, Del Unser to Delgado, John Lennon and Paul McCartney to John Maine and Paul Lo Duca (not to mention Jim Bunning to Jeff Suppan…sigh). We all know, too, our own histories: the first time we were brought here as kids; the first or last time we took our loved ones; that time it was so cold or so warm (sometimes in the course of the same week or same game, depending on your ticket); and, oh, that time it was so much fun. Say Shea and you’ve probably said all you need to say to conjure countless memories and umpteen emotions.
What I think is easy to overlook is how well we — counting us as Mets — and it go together. Hell, by the end of Game Six against St. Louis, I couldn’t tell us apart. Where was that corporate vibe that was going to quiet everybody and everything in October because every other fanny in every other seat would belong to a well-connected frontrunner? The place was more alive than I’d ever heard it or felt it. After Billy Wagner put out his final fire of 2006, we were sweating, we were trembling, we were barely able to stand. In other words, we were Shea and Shea was us. In tandem, we were just trying to hang on for one night more than we’d been told we had left.
Into each life a little rain must fall. Rain pours on Shea. Wind howls into it. It was allegedly supposed to be covered by a dome or at least be closed off. It didn’t and it wasn’t. If you believe Robert Caro’s assertion that Shea was Robert Moses’ “answer to the Colosseum of the Caesars,” it was never going to.
Hence, Shea is immune to nothing. Nor are we. We sit outside too long. We sniffle. We hurt. We don’t hold up perfectly in the course of a long year. Our calves go south at the worst possible juncture. Whether we throw or we house or we cheer, we’re all bound to be a little rickety in our forties.
But we are who we are. We don’t march in lockstep. We are not of one mind. We don’t all don navy windbreakers or red caps. We’re a little raggedy around the edges. We are individuals with our own quirks. Half a row loves the Met who’s at bat, the other half is actively demanding he be packed off to Seattle ASAP. The bon mots share vocal space with the You Sucks. We are individuals woven together for common cause. Shea, in that sense, is one of us.
I don’t see a cookie cutter — unless a chunk of cookie got stuck in the pan. Quick, how many other stadia have looked like Shea? Even in the multipurpose ’60s, nobody else mimicked the Colosseum. Credit/blame the vision of master builder Moses or architects Praeger-Kavanaugh-Waterbury or Mayor Wagner for spending $25 million and getting a three-quarters complete facility a year late for New York taxpayers’ money (John Franco, who grew up in the Marlboro Houses of Bensonhurst and knows a little something about such handiwork, suggested anything built by the city wasn’t going to be all that nice). Shea may not measure up to the antiquities its generation replaced in terms of stone originality, but it was also never the Vet or Three Rivers. It was open. It was inviting. It was distinctive, even.
Before the Cardinals built the current Busch Stadium, they toyed with renovating the old one, specifically ripping open the outfield to provide a good glimpse of the Mississippi. Some computer models were worked up, one of which was dismissed by management as looking “too much like Shea Stadium.”
As if that could be a bad thing.
To really get Shea, sit in the upper deck, in left field. From high on in Section 36, say, as I did on a July afternoon seven years ago. From there, you see it all. You see why we’re where we’ve been since 1964. You see the lush green Moses yearned to develop into New York City’s premier park…the highways that link to create the heart of the Metropolitan area…the Long Island Rail Road station — “your steel thruway to the Fair gateway,” as it was advertised in the 1964 yearbook — originally opened to usher visitors to baseball over here and Peace Through Understanding over there…the IRT, also known as the 7 train, because, well, this was a City field.
That day, as prelude to Matt Franco zinging Mariano Rivera, I understood as I never did before the great truth of Shea Stadium. It was built for us. It was built for us kids, many of whom had parents who moved east, from Brooklyn, from Queens. It was meant to be our playground, our day care center. “I used to say,” Ron Swoboda once recalled, “that the Mets were the biggest babysitting service in the city.”
We raised a fuss and made a racket, but that was all right because we helped drown out the planes (does anybody even still notice the planes?). There’s a reason, I decided, home plate more or less faced Long Island — Great Neck, maybe — without decisive obstruction. It was gesturing toward us kids to come on over and come on in and come play. It was big but not daunting. It was colorful: yellows, later oranges. It had to be designed for or by children. “Tinker Toy architecture,” George Vecsey described it. The ballpark, like the team, was a gift to us, the kids who toddled out of the early ’60s. Did it have to be left open at one end? Let’s just infer that Mr. Moses and Mr. Wagner simply didn’t finish wrapping it in time for Christmas morning, April 17, 1964, and we were too anxious to wait another minute.
Shea’s youthful exuberance, even in middle age, remains its charm. Where else could have…
…taken off as it did in 2006? Jose Reyes heard those chants in Japan. He said they reminded him of Shea Stadium. So did Manny Acta. So did Ryan Howard, not altogether cheerfully.
That’s how we roll. We’ve never needed ThunderStix. We don’t really require the cues from DiamondVision. We know enough to get out of our chairs and go to the window, as it were. It’s what we do. We brought the ethic of Roger Angell’s “‘Go!’ Shouters” over from the Polo Grounds and expanded upon it.
Has there ever been a purer exhortation of faith than LET’S GO METS!? It’s concise without being neat, raucous without being threatening. It can’t be contained, which is why it’s ideal for a horseshoe like Shea. It’s three easy syllables, perfect for the kids and the kid in each of us. The scoreboard need never rev it up again for it to be generated twenty times a game. It rises when we’re hitting and when we’re fielding. It squirts out with nobody on and it rocks the Queens night when the bases are loaded. It’s ours. I’m sure it will survive the trek across the parking lot but I can’t imagine it will ever translate to as much a part of home after 2008.
William A. Shea, the superlawyer whose Continental League machinations led to the formation of the Metropolitan Baseball Club of New York (we should really name something after that guy), was a renowned mover and shaker. That makes sense because if you’ve sat in the upper deck for a playoff game, you know it moves and it shakes. I stood still for it in 2000, frozen when I assumed my demise awaited me below, somewhere in the mezzanine. But we survived. When things started quaking again this October, I joined in the jumping. If me adding my full force to a condemned structure couldn’t kill it, what could?
Oh yeah. Progress. We’re back to that.
Dammit, I wanted to look forward to this new ballpark without reservation. I’ve been craving this on some level since 1994, the first time I stepped off a MARC train from Washington at Camden station in Baltimore and took a long look at the red bricks that formed the back of Oriole Park, particularly the sign that greeted me: WELCOME HOME. I swear I channeled Ned Beatty in Rudy when he saw Notre Dame Stadium for the very first time:
This is the most beautiful sight these eyes have ever seen.
Everything I had salivated over in the two years that I read about Camden Yards was exceeded. How often does that happen? “They got it right,” I kept muttering to myself. “They got it right.” I didn’t care a whit about the Orioles. I was just so impressed that a ballpark could look like a ballpark. I wanted the Mets to have one of these.
So what happened between 1994 and the present? 2006, mostly. Dan Ziegler’s insightfulness. The realization that progress implies what you cherished before was not the ideal. That what was built for my youth and my adolescence has been deemed obsolete by those who operate it. That a stadium constructed in 1963 and 1964, when I was still learning to spout “Metsie! Metsie!” stands no chance of standing 50, never mind 2,000 years. The physical focal point of the single constant of my sentient life, my default destination if I had to pick anywhere I wanted to be at any given moment, will vanish before the next decade dawns.
Citi Field’s pending glory is a reminder of Shea Stadium’s undeniable doom. It can’t beckon without mocking. And boy will it be weird come April when what were barely stakes in the ground when we last craned our necks to check out the activity beyond centerfield will have grown into the actual skeleton of a structure. It was already weird in June when it was just stakes.
Plus, change frightens me. Encountering change is like facing Suppan with the season on the line. It scares me hitless.
More than all that, though, more than the chilling metaphor of a ballpark just a little younger than myself returning to the ash heap from which it rose, the thing about 2006 that makes the end of Shea an almost stunningly melancholy affair is the times that were so much fun.
I’m not talking about my childhood. I’m talking about now. Last month. The month before. April in the cold. June in the humidity. August in a drizzle. At a stage of my life when a blue-ribbon commission should be issuing reports that my concourses are too narrow and my pipes are in danger of bursting and that we’ve really got to do something about your seat size, I enjoyed myself too much to notice what cried out for replacement.
It helps when your team wins lots of games and such but I’m the guy who brought bad luck to the good Mets. It didn’t matter. I was riding high. Row V high. Orange…blue…green…skyward red. It didn’t matter. Snaking lines for the men’s room? It didn’t matter. Trip from the upper deck to the elevated platform so long that I should have earned credit card miles? It didn’t matter. Overofficious jerks barring me and my bride from Daruma delicacies? Even that didn’t matter, no matter how insulting.
There was an evening when a strikingly blonde fellow in a Brazilian soccer jersey and a very unofficial-looking Yankees cap neared me at Woodside (Shea’s outer boundary for my psychic and commutation purposes). He approached me as I waited for the 7. When he saw my suspicion at what was on his head, he took it off. He was visiting from the Netherlands and just wanted directions to Shea. Is this the train? Yes, I said. Follow me.
It wasn’t a tough assignment. The 7 pulled into Willets Point. I told him we get off here, he said thanks and I lost him in the crowd. I met up with Jason, we watched Shawn Green record his first Met hit and the Mets sweep the Cards. Hours later, I saw the Dutch guy leaving with whomever it was he was meeting. The Yankee cap was nowhere in sight. Neither he nor his friend carried a backpack or a bag. I deduced that a night at Shea made him realize he was in the right place with the wrong hat and discarded it. I don’t know what became of him after, but at the very least, William A. and I helped prevent one soul from trending wayward.
Just a small moment in a year of momentous ones, a small moment like the other small moments that add up if you’re careful enough to relish them.
Like the lady who refused to stand at her aisle seat one more damn time to let pass the endless stream of foot traffic that was ruining her night.
Like the chirpy staff photographer who offered my co-blogger and me the opportunity to have our picture snapped in the bottom of the ninth with the tying run batting (we declined, though I had the right item to feature if she clicked).
Like scolding the kid who was kicking my seat and the kid stopping.
Like Dan of Westchester (not to be confused with Dan of Texas) and I suddenly deciding, on a victorious ramp, that “Takin’ Care Of Business” was the best song ever.
Like Laurie contorting herself from Maddux fan back to Mets fan in the time it took Grady Little to change pitchers.
Like the two roars that told me both Kent and Drew had been tagged out by Lo Duca when I couldn’t quite see the plate.
Like the bus lot full of eager seniors.
Like Gate E, where, before Game One of the NLCS, I saw dozens of satin, Davey-era jackets wrapping torsos that weren’t alive during the Johnson administration. Our franchise was now old enough, I divined, to have fathers passing down sacred Mets garments to their sons.
Like the boardwalk — the wooden thruway to the Shea gateway — from the LIRR stop onto which I gained entry by flashing the same ticket to inattentive conductors all year long. Every time I rode the Port Washington line in October, the boardwalk, that great bridge between Shea’s World’s Fair roots and its immediate World Series hopes, was jammed with Long Islanders like me. LET’S GO METS! and HoZAY! sprung up every few feet, petered out and renewed themselves over and over. These fans grew up in the ’60s and the ’70s and the ’80s and the ’90s and the now. They, in the parlance of Terry Cashman, were rushing to the stadium in Flushing because nothing could be more important than the Mets and loving them toward another win. Every one of them was sure this was going to be the year at Shea.
They were right. It was.